Obedience

Finer words on the matter of obedience have surely been penned before, particularly as it relates to the Blessed Virgin Mary’s Psalter, the Holy Rosary. Out-of-synch with the recommended practice of recitation though I was, in praying the Joyful Mysteries this morning it occurred to me — and I assume many others long before my time — that each mystery carries several models of obedience, natural and supernatural alike. Indeed, the first Joyful Mystery — the Annunciation — opens with St. Gabriel carrying out his divine duty by announcing to a Jewish maiden that she, who was immaculately conceived, would bear the Savior of the world. In an act of obedience far more profound than St. Gabriel’s, the young virgin declares, Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. One might also extend their meditation on obedience in this mystery to the very obedience of the natural order itself to the will of God. For it was not by a man that our Queen and Mother conceived, but by the Holy Ghost.

We see obedience flow forth in the four subsequent mysteries. In the second, for instance, the Blessed Virgin, again in obedience to God, sets out to visit her cousin Elizabeth, the bearer of St. John the Baptist. The babe in Elizabeth’s womb, foreshadowing the great obedience he would later show to our Lord Jesus Christ, leaps for joy in utero, for the Baptist was made to serve God and it is in that holy service he finds eternal happiness.

The third Joyful Mystery contains both natural and supernatural examples of obedience. The Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph, in earthly obedience to the civil authority of Rome, make their way to Bethlehem for the census before the birth of Christ. And it is that birth, the Incarnation, which brings shepherds and kings, in obedience to the one true God, to kneel before Him.

The fourth mystery, too, contains more examples of obedience, ranging from the Holy Family’s obedience to the Law of Moses. In a final act of obedience from his long life in service to God, the Righteous Simeon gives thanks to the Lord in the Nunc dimittis before offering a prophecy to Our Lady concerning the trials she must endure as the Theotokos, the one who has borne God the Word, the Redeemer of Mankind.

Finally, in the fifth Joyful Mystery, we see a blend of natural and supernatural obedience as Mary and Joseph, mindful of their station in life and the great mandate they carry from God, search out for the child Jesus, presumed lost in the streets of Jerusalem. It is even more remarkable that in this same mystery one meditates upon Christ’s twofold illustration of obedience, one to his Heavenly Father (“How is it that you sought me? Did you not know I had to be about my Father’s business?”) and one to his earthly family (“And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them.”). Faithfulness to our state on earth, so long as it is good, is faithfulness to God.

It is regrettable that we — or perhaps maybe just I — fail to meditate properly on the virtue of obedience. What drives our obedience? Where can we, in an age so enamored with the idea of the individual and the self-selection of “the right life,” find beautiful examples of holy obedience?

It is, regrettably, a dark truth of these days that even in the Church we are now accustomed to find not obedience, but revolt — revolt against the precepts of the Lord and the natural order He has established for us. There is a gross absence of humility before the teachings of Christ and the Holy Doctors and Popes of the Catholic Church. “This must be updated…”; “this must be changed…”; “this must be made easier for the people…”; “this must be brought into line with ‘the times,”; etc.

God, through the Church, still calls each and every one of us to live a righteous life in service to Him and the state of life which He has given us, and yet we betray Him so easily, so flippantly; it is as if He never revealed Himself at all. If those entrusted with the care of the Church and the salvation of souls will not show obedience to God when exercising the highest duties of their respective offices, how can we be expected to? But we are expected to. God does not let us “off the hook” because some who should know better no longer appear to believe the “old rules” apply either to them or those wayward souls they seek to please in the name of a perverted application of “mercy.” We may protest that that’s “not fair,” but we should rest assured, by the very words of Christ, that those who choose a life of revolt, a life of non serviam, will receive their just reward. As such, faithful Catholics must continue ahead, not by casting glances from side to side to check out the latest, shifting, “measuring stick,” but with eyes fixed firmly on Heaven and mouths open in supplication to Mary, Queen of Heaven. It is her Rosary which provides both instruction in obedience and the graces to cultivate that splendid virtue which will assist us on our journey to the Gates of Heaven.

3 comments

  1. Just last week I was reading St. Bernard writing about conscience in the second chapter of his _On Consideration_. It strikes me that you are really writing about duty and responsibility, and that these are related to conscience, and not quite the same as “obedience”…at least, perhaps not quite as neatly as you describe.

    How are we to judge the consciences of others? What is the conscience? What grounds are there to follow our consciences against those who are charged with training them?

    1. Conscience cannot trump the dictates of God. A bishop of the Church, for instance, cannot accurately and truthfully claim he was “following his conscience” when he decided to permit people living in sin to receive the Eucharist in his diocese. That would be an instance, to say the least, of a malformed conscience.

      1. Now that I’m sober, it is completely obvious that we are talking about very different problems, though, despite their apparent difference, it seems they’re not entirely unrelated.

        I was worried about claims to authority that should (and possibly could) be rationally grounded, but which opt instead for a political grammar and emotional appeals; you seem to be worried, not only that obedience to an established moral norm is not being carried out amongst members of this Extraordinary Synod, but that instead one finds there “revolt against the precepts of the Lord and the natural order He has established”.

        I often hear the word “obedience” invoked, in Cath/Orth/Prot contexts, to describe, exhort, or command submissiveness to something posited: a claim, a course of action, a practice, a belief, a social posture. This raises the issue of authority, and until the principle about what makes something authoritative is publicly resolved in a particular context, the claim to authority and the demand for obedience can only be irrational and non-obligatory; such a command cannot claim the conscience, even if it wins the day and carries with it the power to be enforced (for a time).

        I am certainly not saying that the Catholic Church has not resolved these issues about authority. I am saying, or would assert, that many (most?) Catholics in the US would interpret the canons on who can or cannot receive the Eucharist as arbitrary, would interpret the Catholic Church’s resolutions about authority as the victory of an interested party’s political will, and this makes it necessary for the rationality, and so goodness, of various authoritative canons to be publicly brought forth: their authority must be shown to be rooted in their rationality and their goodness, or else they can only seem like raw will. The same goes for canons about marriage. These people have consciences, and these intuit a good that they think is obstructed by the current rules. I suspect that, if one is going to meet their challenge, one must talk about what this “faculty” is, and show them, on the basis of their own capacities for reason and ethical vision, on the basis of their own conscience, that a different conclusion in fact follows, that they are missing things that you are not forcing down their throats, but which they couldn’t before see for whatever reason. Doesn’t circling the wagons of the faithful keep all of this in the political realm (part of the problem), rather than the rational? Real question.

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